When you’re really trying to get shit done, focus can be an elusive thing.
Here are some tips I learned after speaking with several experts:
1. Make a note every time you catch yourself switch-tasking.
Write it down every time you switch-task — like when you find yourself reading emails while working on an assignment — to help you recognize the biggest sources of lost productivity.
2. Practice focusing like would practice if you were learning how to play an instrument.
It takes time, but it’s totally possible to train your brain to be better at focusing. “The brain is like a muscle — the more you do something, the more you strengthen your brain at doing it,” Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT tells BuzzFeed. “Tell yourself, ‘I’m only going to focus on this one thing for the next 10 minutes, and if that works, try it for 15 minutes next time. You’ll find you work more efficiently and it will be more rewarding for you.”
3. And test your focus skills by watching a 30-minute TV show without futzing around on your phone.
“When we media multitask, like playing phone game while watching a show, we are conditioning our brains to switch-task, and getting the brain used to that behavior,” Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking, tells BuzzFeed. A fun way to break that habit and build your ability to focus for longer periods of time is putting on, say, The Good Place, and actually (gasp) just watching it, instead of looking at your phone the whole time. Jason Mendoza deserves your full attention.
4. When you feel your mind drifting while you’re trying to get something done, get up and walk around for 5-10 minutes.
The average person’s attention starts to wane after about 18 minutes, so Miller recommends short walks to increase blood flow and heart rate and to quell the desire to check in on social media.
5. Also, use breaks to reset and change your focus when you need to.
If you have several tasks you need to accomplish in a day, intentionally pause between them, psychologist Ryan Howes tells BuzzFeed. “Instead of going directly from catching up on your emails to having a talk with your boss, give yourself 30 seconds to relax, take a deep breath, reset, and intentionally change your focus,” he says.
6. Set a schedule for checking your email.
“Most people don’t check their email, they allow it to check them,” Crenshaw says, adding that the average person checks their email 20-30 times a day. If you’re like me, 80-90% of those emails get trashed immediately, and 100% of them don’t require my urgent attention. So if you’re trying to focus in on a task, only check your email, say, three times a day: once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. You can even put your email time on your calendar the way you would for a meeting.
7. The same goes for chat apps, like Slack.
If your job requires you to be active on Slack (or email tbh), talk with your boss or manager about times when you’d like to disconnect so you can get more done. Chances are, they’ll be on board with you wanting to be more productive.
8. And hide your phone when you’re doing anything that you shouldn’t be on your phone for.
It sounds extreme, but merely having it in sight creates temptation to pick it up, making it a “constant distraction,” Miller says. When you’re at work, put it as far from you as possible; when you’re driving, banish it to your bag or the glove compartment. And if you use it as your GPS device, then turn off notifications so they don’t distract you while you’re on the road. Which leads me to…
9. Overhaul your method of receiving phone notifications.
As this Lifehacker article brilliantly puts it, notifications from apps aren’t there to help you, they’re to get you to be on your phone and use your apps more. It’s fine to continue to receive notifications from texts and messages from humans (though it’s worth being intentional about those too!) — but otherwise, turn off badges, notifications, and news alerts. And if there are app notifications you think you need, like ones about when to take pills or work out, you could always just set phone reminders instead.
10. Log out of all social media on your work computer.
If you don’t use a computer at work or your employer’s networks block websites like Facebook and Twitter, then great! Move right along to the next point. But if you, like me, caved and logged into them at some point, you probably spend more time than you’d like scrolling through them throughout the day. So unless you run a social media account for your job, you can wait to see what your crush posted on Instagram until you get home. (Or…never.)
11. Put your phone on silent when you’re at work or interacting with people, like at a meal.
Listening, paying attention, and focusing on what people are saying is the key to good relationships! Being on your phone is like throwing that key to the bottom of the ocean. Silence it, don’t let it interrupt you by vibrating and ringing, and turn it over so you can’t see the screen light up, either.
12. Carve out space for a digital sanctuary.
Have a space — in your schedule and in your physical life — where you completely disconnect from all digital devices. It can be a specific tree that you walk to, or even a corner of your apartment that when you go there, you turn off technology. “Your brain on technology is constantly switching, switching, switching, and it’s a big source of anxiety,” Crenshaw says. “This gives the brain a space to relax, calm down, and enhances its natural ability to focus.”
13. Limit texting to times when you have no other important things going on.
“Texting is one of the biggest culprits of switch-tasking, and people should learn to use it appropriately,” Crenshaw says. “Ideally, they should be quick, informational messages. Otherwise, they create so many switches.” If you want to have a full-on conversation over text, do it when you have nothing else going on that requires cognitive attention (like while you’re listening to music or sitting on the train). That makes it background-tasking, as opposed to switch-tasking. Or, Crenshaw says, you can reserve specific times each day for texting the way you would for email.
14. Better yet, make a phone call if you’re having a whole back and forth over text.
“The moment back-and-forth texts turn into a discussion, you should have a phone call,” Crenshaw says. “More often than not, after extensive text conversation, you’ll find that if you’d just picked up phone, it could’ve been a lot quicker.” But if a core part of your identity is HATING PHONE CALLS THEY’RE THE DEVIL OMG — which is perfectly understandable!!!! — then a designated texting time is the way to go. And at the very least, recognize when you’ve crossed over to an extensive back and forth, and either give the conversation your full attention, or tell the person you’ll BRB.
15. Keep extensive to-do lists…but only in a few places!
The good news is that writing down notes is a great way to clear your brain of tasks and potential switches and enhance focus. The bad news is that most of us have way too many places for those notes, or “gathering points,” as Crenshaw calls them. Most people have between 30-40 — in your phone’s notes app, in an email draft, on a notepad, on your hand, on another notepad, on a sticky note, in your planner, on a third notepad you found in your tote bag. Crenshaw recommends having six or fewer, and they can be a mix of digital and analog. “Schedule an appointment with yourself to go through your notes and bring them down to zero each week,” he says.
16. Instead of using multiple screens or windows on your work computer, make the window you’re working in take up the whole screen.
That way, your eyes won’t drift toward your computer’s task bar, or, god forbid, your email.
17. Oh, and don’t bring your phone or laptop to meetings if you don’t need it.
If you’re feeling like meetings are a waste of your time, it could be because you’re not focusing enough to catch the things you’re supposed to be there for. Bring a notepad instead and write down any important points — and if there aren’t anyway, then yeah, maybe that meeting is a waste of your time. But it’s still a good opportunity to practice being fully focused, especially because being on your phone or laptop can look unprofessional, and can be super distracting to the other people in attendance.
18. Be conscious and present in whatever you’re doing in a particular moment.
Howes suggests keeping a running commentary on what you’re doing to stay aware and present. “When you’re going through your day, say to yourself, ‘I’m in the elevator, I’m going into the office, I’m reviewing my notes,'” he says. “That’s the mindfulness part of focus, and what people find a lot of benefits from when they’re trying to be better on focusing on one task at a time. Being intentional about everything you’re doing helps keep everything compartmentalized.”
19. And don’t forget to check in with yourself on a regular basis.
“Ask yourself, ‘How am I doing right now? Am I hungry, tired, stressed, emotional?'” Howes says. “That’s a great mindfulness approach that will help you know what your brain wants its next task to be.” Do your little self check-in multiple times a day to get a status report on how things are going and what you really should be doing.